Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Are You In The "Right" Career?

I have always been fascinated by how we choose our careers—or how our careers choose us. Some of us end up doing work we love because it’s a perfect fit for our temperaments and life goals; others stay for years in jobs that suck out their life force. I once worked with a woman whose wall calendar was filled with X’s, marking off the days until she was eligible to retire in another 10 years and do what she really loved—baking extraordinary cookies and cakes. She reminded me of a prisoner patiently making chalk marks on a wall while dreaming of freedom.

As a career coach I’m frequently called on to help clients figure out their life’s work. They ask me “How do I know I’m in the right career” or “How can I discover what I’m really good at and would be happy to do for the rest of my life?” So how do we really know? We can take various career assessments and personality profiles to see how our interests and abilities match those of others who are successful in a particular line of work. Those tests can give us important clues about our options but they can’t make decisions for us.

So what’s so important about choosing a career that’s a good fit? Just look around you. The fallout from disastrous career choices is not pretty. Some very “successful” people turn out to be profoundly miserable and take it out either on their colleagues or themselves. For example, we all know doctors who, after completing many years of training, realize their chosen career is all wrong for them. Rather than throw away many years of preparation, they continue to treat patients while going through the motions. The results can range from minor medical errors to personal or professional tragedy. And I have lost count of the numbers of people who were happy doing their jobs until the day someone made them a “supervisor”. Usually, unhappy supervisor equals unhappy workers as well.

I have also encountered people doing so-called “dirty jobs” who dispense unlimited amounts of wisdom and joy while going about their daily tasks. One man in particular sang and smiled while emptying the trash. When I asked him why he always seemed so cheerful, he responded that he believed he was doing the work he was put on earth to do and was happy to do it to the best of his ability while making others’ days brighter. His attitude was a great reminder of the impact any of us can have—positive or negative—no matter what we do to earn a living. I believe that most of us want to make a positive contribution, but what agonies we often go through to find work that nourishes us as well.

Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak, says “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you . . . Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.” In my experience, many of us reach midlife without having truly listened to the “voice of vocation” as Palmer calls it.

So here’s my advice to those of you just beginning your career journeys or contemplating a change:

a Take the time to really listen to that voice. Choose a career—or make a change—because you know it is absolutely the right thing for you to do. Choose work that feels so right you can’t imagine doing anything else.

a Discover your passion and follow it. I vividly recall a client who, when I asked her what she was passionate about, responded “nothing, really,” then after a long silence said, “Well, I kind of like people.” Not good enough!

a Don’t choose a career just because the job is high paying or prestigious or your parents/friends want you to take up a particular line of work.

a Don’t “settle” just to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Yes, you may need to find work that takes care of the bills, but don’t give up on your dream while addressing reality. For example, find a job with an organization that offers tuition reimbursement so you can prepare for your career of choice while making a living.

a Don’t let fear of the unknown or what others will think stop you before you even get started.

a Never let others disabuse you of your gifts and your purpose for being on earth.

a When you’ve found your vocation, remember to use your talents to help other people, just as they helped you achieve success.